Approaching a Women’s Rugby World Cup on home soil next month, Ailis Egan and Jenny Murphy have a steely determination to drive Ireland to new heights on the pitch – but also off it where they are helping to grow the number of girls playing rugby around the country.
As the tournament draws ever closer and the anticipation rises for Ireland’s Pool C opener against Australia on Wednesday, August 9, events all over Ireland – including the ever-popular WRWC Trophy Tour and the IRFU’s #GiveItATry club sessions – are heightening the interest of girls and women in playing rugby.
Mindful of their own roles in helping to grow the game and represent Irish women’s sport as best they can, Ireland prop Ailis Egan said: “It’s something that we talk about as a squad a lot, striving to be good role models – and to show what you can do – for young girls who are coming to our matches and seeing us on TV, so that they can now go, ‘You know what? When I can grow up and play rugby’.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t have any female role models in sport. Most of mine were either sprinters, male sprinters, or male rugby players. So to be able to inspire young girls now is huge. We try and spend as much time as we can with fans or going to schools – Jenny (Murphy) goes to a lot of schools, a lot of the girls have been going around the country with the World Cup Trophy Tour.
“We try to highlight it as much as we can. Obviously we make sure it doesn’t impact on our performance or on our training, but it’s a huge part of who we are as a squad and it’s something we take responsibility for.”
Speaking on the ‘Second Captains’ podcast along with her housemate Egan, Murphy said that having an opportunity to inspire newcomers to the game is something she ‘really relishes’. The 28-year-old centre is a Sky Sports ‘Living For Sport’ mentor and also an ambassador for the Aviva Mini Rugby Festivals.
“We’re going to be playing for a finite amount of time. All those extra things outside that may be seen as a distraction will wind down as we get closer to the World Cup kicking off. But, for the moment, enjoy it because hopefully in a few years’ time, there will be even more girls not just playing rugby but other different sports,” said Murphy of finding the balance between her WRWC training and helping to spread ‘rugby fever’ in schools and clubs.
“When I was growing up I absolutely adored Ryan Giggs. I thought Sonia O’Sullivan was great, but even now I’m no long distance runner. I knew that wasn’t achievable at all. I can still probably grow a mullet like Ryan Giggs back in the day though!
“It’s not just rugby players, there’s Ladies Gaelic footballers that are now more prominent in the media and rightly so. There’s female golfers doing really well. It’s more variety and more girls can look up and decide, ‘I want to do that’. When I was younger there was much narrower scope for choice.”
Away from rugby, Egan works as a fundraising administrator with MS Ireland. A two-time Six Nations winner like Murphy, she has 41 caps under her belt and would love the next generation to pick up a ball this summer and see what an inclusive sport rugby is.
“We’re in such a privileged position, we’re in a squad that’s playing well and we’re going to be playing a World Cup on home soil. We have to do something, we have to further the game, and we have to give a chance to the younger ones, the younger girls that they can play sport,” she insisted.
“Participation rates in schools across the country are going down, so it’s about promoting the benefits of sport. I’ve got so much out of it, I want people to know how much I’ve got out from it and what they can get from it. It makes a huge impact on your life.”
Close to 10,000 spectators watched Ireland’s two home Six Nations matches against France and England at Donnybrook this year. The sold-out signs are already up at the UCD Bowl for Ireland’s World Cup pool fixtures, guaranteeing a fever-pitch atmosphere for Tom Tierney’s charges as they look to top Pool C ahead of Australia, Japan and France.
There will be familiar faces dotted around the Belfield ground – family members, partners, friends and club-mates – and a big welcome is afforded to those new and old to an Ireland Women’s matchday experience. Murphy admitted that interacting with the crowd after a game ‘is one of her favourite aspects of rugby’.
“You get to chat to people after and we’ll hang around pitchside meeting people. It’s a varied crowd, you’ve got fathers bringing their sons and mothers bringing their daughters, but also old men in the bar that couldn’t get a ticket to the men’s game!
“A few years ago, one guy couldn’t get a ticket to the Ireland-England men’s game in 2013. He bought a ticket to go to Ashbourne and it was the first time we had ever beaten England, and he then followed us around, he flew to Italy, he comes to all our away games now. He’s a farmer from Sligo, I think. It’s amazing, that kind of interaction is really sweet. I really like it.”
‘Give It A Try’ is an IRFU initiative that forms part of the Women’s Rugby World Cup Impact Beyond programme to encourage more girls to get involved and get active in rugby. Check out the list of venues hosting ‘Give It A Try’ already this summer and keep an eye out for more clubs in your area.
If you missed out on a ticket to watch Ireland at the UCD Bowl in August, fear not! Tickets are still available for their knockout matches at Kingspan Stadium, and also the other ranking games at Queen’s University. Buy your ticket(s) now from www.ticketmaster.co.uk/wrwc2017 and www.ticketmaster.ie/wrwc2017.